Vietnamese Pho Bo – Beef Noodle Soup and finding the perfect cooking course in Hoi An

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Vietnamese cuisine is to put it simply, ‘heavenly’. After my first bite of a Banh Mi, from Banh Min 11, back in London, not that long ago, I knew that it was going to be a culinary love affair. Since arriving in the motherland it has not disappointed. Each meal we have eaten has been a multitude of delicate, fragrant flavours – spices that sing to you and dance on your tongue.

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Herbs feature heavily in most dishes and add real fragrant lift. I was sufficiently enthused that I am going to attempt to grow some of them back in London – for example Vietnamese mint (which I should have no problems growing!), Vietnamese basil, saw tooth coriander, Vietnamese lemon balm, garlic chives. There is a great explanation of Vietnamese herbs here.

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I was keen to attend a cooking course in the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Hoi An and so set about researching a course that best suited my needs. I was given a few recommendations, however, I decided that a course run by the very affable Van, who runs ‘Green Bamboo Cooking School’ suited my needs perfectly.

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The course run by Van offered a detailed tour of the fresh food markets, where we picked up our ingredients; convivial fellow pupils; personal touches by Van who runs the course in her own home; unhurried tutoring over seven hours; a generous range of recipes manifesting itself in a memorable group lunch and a souvenir goodie bag to take home. Throw in door to door service as Van kindly ferried us to and from our hotels, and it is no surprise that Trip Advisor has over 210 positive comments for this class with no dissenters.

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I am pleased to say that course surpassed even my high expectations. Van was charming, spoke excellent English and a was a natural teacher. She also converted me to Vietnamese coffee – the condensed milk being the key.

My fellow students were a really lovely bunch of enthusiastic foodies – three Australians, two Norwegians and two Swiss and all of us had huge grins on our faces all day, clearly revelling in the fact that we had chosen such a perfect course. Here are few photos of the day. Scroll down.

I elected to cook the unofficial national dish of Vietnam – pho bo, beef noodle soup (pronounced ‘fur’). You can find pho stalls on most streets in Vietnam, but to cook it well is the tricky part. I was keen to understand how to cook it from scratch and to make that perfect pho broth. First stop was the market to buy the beef, which was as fresh as it gets as the cow had been slaughtered that very morning. We bought the beef fillet and 1kg of beef bones. Normally Van would have bought the spine, but there had been a run on spine bones that morning from a hotel restaurant, which had bought the lot. So instead we had a range of other beef bones and some shin to add to the flavour.

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Back at Van’s house the first trick I learnt was to gently char the skin of some ginger, shallots and garlic over a flame as this would give the broth a deep smokey flavour.

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It takes no more than a couple of minutes on each side.

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I then removed most of the skin of the ginger, using that back of a teaspoon and also the skin from the shallots and garlic, which is very easy at this stage as they virtually pop out.

After properly cleaning the beef bones, place them in a large pan of boiling water so as to get rid of any scum from the bones before cooking. Submerge them in boiling water for under a minute and then place them into a second large saucepan, which has also has boiling water in it. Discard the water from the first saucepan. You then need to add the charred ginger, garlic and shallots

Continue to add the following ingredients to the pan: 2 chillies, stick of cinnamon, 1 large white onion, 5 star anise, 5 Chinese apples. I had not come across Chinese apples before, but they tasted delicious. As they may be difficult to source for some people, dates work equally well. Add some sugar and salt and if you fancy, some beef stock as well (I decided to omit the beef stock, to see how it would taste in its natural state).

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Place a lid on the top and leave to boil away gently for a further 2 to 3 hours. Add more seasoning to taste and beef stock if necessary.

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Meanwhile, very finely slice the beef fillet and leave in the fridge until ready to use.

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Before serving have individual bowls of bean sprouts and fresh pho noodles/rice noodles, (the noodles you have submerged into boiling water for 30 seconds and drained) at the ready. In a large ladle add a little of the raw beef and submerge it into the pho broth so that the broth fills the ladle. Using a fork or chop sticks, move the beef around in the boiling stock in your ladle for 30 seconds (that magic number) so that it cooks through and ladle it over one of the bowls of noodles that you have prepared.

Add a generous amount of fresh herbs, including Asian basil, coriander, spring onions along with a quarter of a lime and chilli sauce to taste. You can also have a small bowl of soy sauce on the side, should you wish to add a little, as well as some sliced green papaya and fresh sliced chilli.

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I was delighted by the results and despite having eaten a ridiculous amount of the tastiest Vietnamese food, cooked by my fellow foodies, I managed to see off a bowl of my pho bo.

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Eight happy and well fed people were then deposited back to their hotels, along with a goodie bag provided by Van.

I hope that you too will try this tasty version of pho. Watch this space for more Vietnamese recipes over the coming months.

Pho Bo (Beef Noodle Soup)

Adapted from Van’s recipe, who runs Green Bamboo Cooking School

Serves at least 8

500g fresh pho noodles/rice noodles

300g beef fillet

1 kg beef bones – ideally spine bones or shin

5 litres boiling water

1 tbsp beef stock

******************

5 star anise

1 large stick of cinnamon

1 roasted fresh ginger

5 roasted shallots

1 large roasted bulb of garlic

5 dried Chinese apples/dates

1 whole white onion, peeled

2 red chillies, left whole or chopped in two

2 tsp salt and pepper

1 tbsp raw sugar

**********

50g fresh bean sprouts

50g fresh Asian basil

50g fresh coriander

50g spring onion, finely sliced

2 limes, cut into quarters

green papaya, finely sliced

chilli paste to taste

soy sauce, to taste (optional)

2 fresh chillies, sliced (optional)

1. Wash the beef bones under a tap and then place to one side. Meanwhile bring two large pans of water to the boil. In the first add the beef bones and submerge them for just under a minute and then transfer them to the second saucepan. Discard the water from the first saucepan.

2. Over a gas flame place the garlic, shallots and ginger on a metal grill directly above the flame, allowing them to char/roast. After a couple of minutes turn them over so that both sides are equally charred. Using the back of a teaspoon, peel off a little of the skin of the ginger.

3. Add them to the bones and boiling water, along with the onion, chillies, dried Chinese apples/dates, cinnamon stick and star anise. Add the salt, sugar, pepper and beef stock it you wish and place a lid on the pan and let  it boil gently for 2-3 hours.

4. Meanwhile, very finely slice the beef fillet and return it to the fridge.

5. Before serving, warm the noodles by placing them on a slotted spoon and submerging them in boling water for 30 seconds. Drain and place in individual bowls. Add the bean sprouts to each of the bowls.

6. In a large ladle add a little of the thinly sliced beef fillet and submerge into the pho broth so that the ladle is completely full and the beef is submerged. With a fork or chop sticks move the beef around in the ladle so that it ‘cooks’ through properly.  Pour over the noodles. Please note the pho broth needs to be boiling/bubbling away at this stage so that the beef fillet is cooked properly. 

7. Add the fresh herbs, lime, spring onions, green papaya and chilli paste/soy sauce/fresh chillies to taste.

8. Serve immediately and enjoy piping hot.

18 thoughts on “Vietnamese Pho Bo – Beef Noodle Soup and finding the perfect cooking course in Hoi An

  1. Pho is sublime, but I don’t know that I would make it–I happen to live near a neighborhood filled with Vietnamese restaurants that I’d go crazy trying to duplicate theirs, which is pretty good. I liked your aspirations to try to grown Vietnamese mint and basil. Any thoughts on the taste/aroma differences? Thanks. (Great pics!) Ken

    • Hi Ken, You are lucky to live so close to some many good Vietnamese restaurants. There are lots in London’s East End, but over my side of London there is only one of any note. The mint leaf in Vietnam actually originates in Thailand but they never call it Thai basil – it has a aniseed taste. The mint is more fragrant to the one growing in my garden in London. There is a distinct difference. Best Torie

  2. We have a pho noodle restaurant close by and I’m never disappointed in their broth. I am really pleased to have this recipe and tips. We attended the Red Bridge Cooking school while in Hoi An a couple of years ago but didn’t make pho. Your pictures of the market bring back pleasant memories and aromas.

    • Hi Lynne, I have always wondered what goes into making the perfect Pho broth and I am so glad that the lovely Van was able to share her secrets at making the broth very tasty – I hope you agree. Ah Red Bridge Cooking School – did you enjoy the course there? I was ponding between the one I chose (Green Bamboo), Red Bridge and Morning Glory (which have a superb restaurant in Hoi An). Such a great experience, whichever one you go on, although I was very pleased with Green Bamboo as we learn’t so much in Van’s very spacious home kitchen.

  3. beautiful, when i go (someday) i will have that school at the top of my itinerary! i never heard about putting chinese apples (what is that?!) or dates in the broth. will add dates next time. I live in Brazil at the moment and my local butchers wont sell (or give) me any of the bones (but i heard that if i go to the Japanese district they will sell them) so usually i use only ox tails as the beef flavor base in the broth. and one other sad thing, no Thai basil! anywhere! it doesn’t exist in Brazil. so i have to use regular basil. But these are only tiny details. I am going to make your recipe for bun cha this weekend for a group of friends, i can’t wait!

    • Thanks Mallory. Yes I really recommend the cooking course in Hoi An, if I return I will definitely visit again. Chinese apples (Dried monkey apple fruit or jujubes or Chinese date) are really easy to come by in Hong Kong. Virtually every herbalist has packets of them to buy for next to nothing. I haven’t investigated where I can buy them in London as yet as I am still working my way through my Hong Kong batch and will probably do so for quite some time yet ;o) Dates will work equally well so don’t worry. Shame about no thai basil – I wonder how easy it would be to grow it from seeds as I am sure you could buy the seeds on line? Good luck making bun cha this weekend. You may find you need to double up on the sauce, but as I mentioned on my blog my Vietnamese hosts did not finish their sauce, instead using it more to dunk their noodles, herbs, pork into. I on the other hand found it so tasty and swallowed the lot. It’s quite sweet though! I hope you and your guests love it too. Let me know how you get on. Best Torie

  4. M

    Came across your blog while while googling for ‘chinese apples’. Turns out we also attended Van’s cooking class in Hoi An and are now trying to re-create the pho back home in Munich.
    It’s a small world 🙂

  5. Pingback: Top Recipe: Pho for Beginners - from the Cookbook Create Blog

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